As thoughtful Christians, it’s vitally important that we maintain a regular course of communication with our Heavenly Father.
This is easier for some than others, to be sure, and I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit it doesn’t come naturally.
The intellectual side of Christianity is very attractive and most natural to me, so I’ve been thinking about a way to understand our relational experience of Christ in this context. By using some pragmatic philosophy, we can draw helpful distinctions between the various ways we know and experience God and his world.
Thus, the purpose of this study is two-fold: First, to help believers who may be experiencing crippling doubt, frustration, or mental anguish learn the crucial difference between ones emotional condition and ones faith in the facts of Christianity. And second, to provide intellectually-astute Christians with a model by which to more deeply know and experience our Lord.
My former pastor, in response to the nagging doubt, uncertainty, and depression many Christians face, has a saying: “We’re not saved by feelings; however, faith in the facts will produce the right feelings.”
This is, I think, helpful, so long as we clearly understand the difference between each of these notions and how they come together to affect our overall experience of God. To misunderstand or misconstrue these indeed would lead both to disastrous theological and experiential consequences.
To think that faith is our only way of knowing the facts leads ultimately to fideism, which seems false experientially and theologically.
To think that an overwhelming sort of “religious experience” is necessary to knowing God is a failure to understand what the Bible teaches about true religious experience.
To think that facts alone are important to knowing and experiencing God is to reduce to deism, where God has nothing to do—literally—except “exist.”
A proper theology of Christian experience, accompanied by a proper human epistemology,1 will be necessary to interacting with God the way he’s ordained in his Word.
A word of caution, though, for the casual reader of this piece: It’d be tempting to stop after reading this far and write it off as a high-minded discussion that is no more than philosophical gobbledygook. I’d prayerfully ask you to reconsider.
The fact is, if Christianity is true and therefore God is real, I can think of almost nothing more important than being in relationship with him—not merely affirming his existence. And my sense is that many of you who will read this have a very mistaken understanding of what this looks like; or, at the very least, you know someone who does.
So let’s take a look at each of these notions—Facts, Faith, and Feelings—and seek to gain a proper understanding of the limits of each, while learning how to use them to the fullest extent possible to impact our experience of our precious Lord.
Facts: Proposed Truth Claims Which Require Both Evidence and Interpretation
Although my former pastor’s aphorism rightly has faith chronologically preceding the facts, the facts have logical priority to the faith. That is, as we’ll see, faith stands in response to the facts.
So what are “the facts” about facts? As I understand them, we could say that facts are proposed truth claims which require both evidence and interpretation. Let’s briefly unpack this.
First, they are proposed truth claims. This is relatively uncontroversial, but a very common mistake is made on this point. Facts require interpretation, but exist independently of it. There is a reason why court cases require adjudication. If facts automatically implied their correct interpretation, attorneys wouldn’t exist!
Another way of saying this would be to say that facts are prima facie truths. “Bob went to the grocery store at 8pm” is a potentially true state of affairs, prima facie.
Second, they require evidence. Let me make it clear that facts do not necessarily require evidence. There are some facts (e.g., “the external world exists”) that cannot be demonstrated evidentially; rather, they are what philosophers call “properly basic.”2 But to extend our court case illustration, say “Bob’s” attorney used the claim “Bob went to the grocery store at 8pm that night” as an alibi to show that he was not at another location committing a crime of which he is accused.
If this is true, Bob will know it as a properly basic fact. But in order to demonstrate this for the court, evidence such as a time-stamped camera recording or eyewitness testimony from a reliable source will need to be submitted. Still, this doesn’t go far enough. Assuming we have such evidence, it’s enough to establish the truthfulness of Bob’s being at the grocery store that night at 8pm. It is not, however, enough to support the conclusion “therefore, Bob did not commit crime x.”
For that, interpretation is required.
Finally, they require interpretation. This final point can be clearly apprehended by watching two short videos, here and here, which explain the difference between facts and interpretation with respect to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most historians of antiquity agree on the facts surrounding the events, but disagree on their interpretation!
Back to Bob: While it may be, at this point, undeniable that Bob was at the grocery store at 8pm and therefore prima facie did not commit the crime, it’s not so clear that Bob was not ultimately responsible for the crime. For example, Bob could have paid someone else to commit the crime on his behalf, under which circumstance he would likely still be charged, even if with a lesser sentence.
Thus, we find all around us facts which must be interpreted according to evidence, background information, reasonable assumptions, etc. It’s a fact that organisms change over time—not that they all evolved from a universal common ancestor (that would be an interpretation). It’s a fact that we have sedimentary rock deposited all around the globe—not that they are a result of millions of years of slow geologic processes (that would be an interpretation).
And, similarly, it’s a fact that the original disciples of Jesus had experiences of the risen Christ—not that Jesus rose from the dead (that would be an interpretation).
Now this is not to say that interpretation is merely subjective. In most cases, an objective evaluation of the evidence is possible given—and this is crucial—the proper starting assumptions and sufficient background information. Once one has sufficient evidence in the absence of any defeater—whether external (the camera at the grocery store) or internal (the existence of the outside world)—to justify believing in an interpretation of a fact, she is rational in her belief.
It seems to me this kind of evaluation is enough to establish belief in the facts which undergird Christianity. One can come to know, intellectually, that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, that the world is overtaken by sin and corruption, etc., and yet respond improperly to the evidence. This seems to be the condition of the devil himself and his minions (James 2:19).
We thus evaluate the claims of the Bible as historical facts which require evidence in support of them, and an interpretation in order to understand them.
Faith: A Way of Trusting What We’ve Come to Believe About the Facts
While I’m not a fan of cliche illustrations, cliche’s often become such for a reason. In that vein, consider a person who is embarking on a transatlantic flight. Perhaps he gives intellectual assent to the fact that the pilot has extensive training, and has logged hundreds and hundreds of hours in the air.
Consider how safe he is justified in feeling, given that the rate of car accidents is exponentially higher than that of plane crashes, and yet, commutes to work in dangerous traffic conditions each morning. What role does faith play in this scenario?
Is it faith that allows him the intellectual assent to these facts? I think obviously not. His knowledge of such facts, if he has them, comes through rational apprehension of them.
Perhaps he does research prior to his trip to learn about the rate of auto traffic incidents vs. air incidents. And, perhaps he asks the pilot about his flight history as he enters the plane. Regardless, he has yet to exercise faith, on the biblical definition. Indeed, faith is not truly exercised until he elects to remain on the flight until the very last moment he has the opportunity to disembark. Once the plane begins take-off procedures, it’s too late, and assuming he has full confidence in the facts he’s obtained, he can rightly be said to be exercising faith—trust—in what he has good reason to believe is true.
This illustration, while arguably cliche, is quite instructive as to what Christians mean by faith. We do not mean, as Mark Twain once quipped, “believing what you know ain’t so!” Neither is the Christian notion of faith akin to what so-called “street epistemologists,” the disciples of Peter Boghassian, construe it to be.
Greg Koukl explains:
It’s a common rhetorical ruse to redefine words vital to a debate in a way that favors one’s own position. Mangling the definition of faith is a trick used almost universally by atheists recently to illicitly gain advantage in their assault against Christianity. This atheist, though, builds an entire attack plan around this ploy. Here is Boghossian’s definition. A Christian’s faith is nothing more than “belief without evidence,” a habit of “pretending to know things you don’t know.” After all, Boghossian asserts, ‘if one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith. ‘Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief.’”
Of course, even a cursory read through the New Testament reveals that Boghassian’s definition of faith is arbitrary, and certainly doesn’t apply to the Christian view. I’ve argued as such many times before, such as here and here. To summarize the Christian’s view, then, Koukl puts it aphoristically: “Faith is not a way of knowing; it’s a way of trusting.”
To reiterate clearly the way I put it earlier, “faith is active trust in what one has good reason to believe is true.”
Thus, we’re beginning to form a clear picture: the Christian gives intellectual assent to a set of facts, whether he apprehended them through reading the Bible, hearing a preacher, studying the historical facts of Jesus’ life and resurrection, reflecting on the nature of reality and coming to realize his naturalism is bankrupt to explain it, or some combination of the above, and upon becoming convinced, proceeds to exercise faith (as active trust) in those facts.3
Notice how neither the facts of the case nor the faith by which one trusts in those facts have anything to do with one’s subjective emotional state of mind at any point in time. So, what of “feelings?”
Feelings: How We Feel Irrespective of The Facts and Our Faith Response
The biblical record is all over the place when it comes to the subjective emotional condition in which many important historical figures found themselves. Thomas, despite having his life radically impacted by Jesus, doubted in his resurrection. Peter denied him three times to save face.
Elijah, nearing the end of a successful ministry by anyone’s standards, dove into a deep state of despair such that he wished for the Lord to take his life! David often found himself persecuted and oppressed by his enemies. Jesus himself was anxious to the point of sweating blood at the thought of completing his work on the cross. Job contemplated why, given his suffering, God even allowed him to be born!
And this list only scratches the surface!
What do we make of this? First, let’s consider what I mean by “feelings.” I understand our feelings to be how we feel (i.e., our subjective emotional condition) irrespective of and apart from the facts themselves and the faith we exercise in those facts. I think I can briefly show this in the case of each of the above-mentioned biblical figures, but first let’s extend our transatlantic passenger analogy:
As indicated, our traveler has already become intellectually satisfied with the facts of the case. He has full assurance, through his obtaining compelling evidence, that his plane is safe and his pilot has the necessary experience to finish the job. Moreover, he has exercised his active trust (faith) in such facts by remaining on the flight. He’s now in the air, his life in the hands of the pilot and the aircraft.
Let’s say the flight now begins to experience extreme turbulence, well beyond what one might consider “normal.” Undoubtedly, the passenger begins to experience fear! Perhaps he begins to doubt whether his faith was well-founded. Perhaps he is so worried and anxious that he has a panic attack! What has changed? The facts haven’t. In this illustration, there is no malfunction on the plane and the pilot has not lied about his experience. In fact, the pilot may have full confidence in his ability to right the plane and end the turbulence, no harm done.
Has the passenger’s faith changed? Perhaps it has wavered a bit or been temporarily shaken, but surely it’s not been lost! In fact, once the turbulence ends, his faith may be strengthened since pilot and plane both will have demonstrated their ability to overcome real challenges to his belief in them!
Here’s the point: His feelings had nothing to say about the facts at hand, nor did they ultimately serve to damage his faith in them. This may seem more difficult to understand with respect to faith, but I think a proper theology provides perspective on that question. The Bible is clear, I think, in teaching that one who exercises genuine saving faith in Jesus Christ will persevere to the end. If that’s true, then his feelings cannot possibly serve to affect the faith he has placed in Christ negatively. Even temporary feelings of anguish and doubt will, ultimately, be used of God to strengthen his convictions.
The biblical examples mentioned earlier are helpful here. Although Thomas doubted, his faith was made stronger than ever upon receiving further evidence of Christ’s bodily resurrection. Peter, despite his constant wavering and need to save face, became the leader of the early church. Elijah gave powerful demonstrations of Yahweh’s power, even after his season of depression, passed the mantle onto his protege, Elisha, and was the second to be translated by God miraculously to heaven!
David is regarded in the Bible as a “man after God’s own heart” and is seen, despite his most negative expressions in the Psalms, as a key figure in biblical history and was even in the Messianic line of Christ. Jesus himself was God! And, even in his humanity, obviously exercised faith by willfully submitting to the authorities who crucified him. Job persevered, responded to his critics, and was ultimately endowed with a double portion of the material blessings that God allowed to be stripped from him.
Thus we’ve seen, through biblical examples and illustrative reflection, that one’s experience of God may feel one way, while the facts of the case are entirely different, and while she remains committed to those facts through intellectual assent and active trust.
Knowing and Experiencing God: The Practical Application
At the outset of this article, I mentioned that the purpose of this study is two-fold: First, to help believers who may be experiencing crippling doubt, frustration, or mental anguish learn the difference between one’s emotional condition and one’s faith in the facts of Christianity. And second, to provide intellectually-astute Christians with a model by which to more deeply know and experience our Lord.
Let’s consider each of these practical purposes in turn.
First, how does this study apply to believers who may be experiencing crippling doubt, frustration, or mental anguish?
Well, it seems to me these distinctions have the potential to provide tremendous comfort to one living through such circumstances. We have a tendency as human beings to allow our feelings to determine how we perceive the reality of our situation to be. When in fact, that is not at all correct.
Instead, we should allow times of emotional despair and discomfort to draw us closer and deeper into the arms of God, not further away from him. When we have the arguments, evidence, and our faith in God’s work in our hearts to lean on, we can begin to filter our circumstances through the context of our relationship with him, rather than be tempted to abandon it.
Finally, what application can be made to the intellectually-oriented Christian who’s seeking a way to more intimately connect with God?
In this regard, I think the very act itself of distinguishing these three notions as individual aspects of our Christian experience is helpful. By understanding that there is an intellectual rigor to the Christian faith which exists wholly apart from our subjective emotional condition, it allows us to step outside of those emotions and reconnect with the claims of the Bible.
Then, after re-establishing this connection, we can set the facts “to the side” and take time to foster our emotional connection with God. As an example, I spend a lot of time reading intellectual books and listening to didactic-style podcasts. But every now and then, I’ll find myself starting to treat God more like a theoretical entity whose existence I am to prove rather than my Heavenly Father who gave his Son as a ransom for my life.
This model helps me, personally, to realize that my connection with God goes much deeper than my current subject of interest; rather, it pervades my entire life in ways that both do and don’t come natural to me. Embracing this model allows me to connect with God in each of those ways, and enjoy a more wholesome Christian life and experience.
I love to use aphorisms to help make an important point, and make it memorable. So here is a helpful one I’d love to leave you with, that perhaps will bring many of the points I’ve argued to remembrance when you’re seeking a deeper connection with our Father:
How I feel cannot conceal the facts and faith I know are real.
Memorize the above, and lean on that truth when you’re feeling far from God, for whatever reason. I hope this has been a helpful study into knowing and connecting God in a deeper, more intimate way.
- That is, a proper understanding of how we actually come to know things.
- This means we don’t know these facts by way of evidence and argument, but rather, by personal experience.
- Let’s be careful to note that I am not discounting the role the Holy Spirit plays in this transaction. As I’ve written on before, the Holy Spirit’s working is vital to this transaction. And while this is important, it’s nevertheless immaterial to the illustration and so has been left out for purposes of simplicity.